Community meetings: Rock not ramble

Unfortunately when many communities set up shop they make one particularly common mistake: they focus too heavily on the medium as opposed to the approach.
Written by Jono Bacon, Contributor on

At the heart of great communities is great communication. Different communities converse in very different ways. Some step out into the big blue room and talk face to face in coffee shops, classrooms and lecture theatres, whereas some chew the fat online on mailing lists, in chat channels and in forums. Unfortunately when many communities set up shop they make one particularly common mistake: they focus too heavily on the medium as opposed to the approach.

There are two basic types of conversation that happen in communities:

  • Ad-Hoc - these are the general off-the-cuff chats and discussions that happen in your community's hang outs. You can consider ad-hoc discussions to be the equivalent of office banter: the key point is that they are unscheduled, have no fixed agenda and no formally required outcome.
  • Meetings - the second type of discussion are meetings, and they are the inverse of ad-hoc discussion. Meetings have scheduled times and locations, they should have an agenda and their purpose is to achieve a given outcome, be it consensus, a document, a strategy or otherwise.

Today I want to share some tips for refining the latter of these two types of conversation. I am also keen to see you lovely people share your experiences in the comments on this article too. :-)

The goal of a meeting is to be productive and rewarding. It should be focused, to the point, professional and generate tangible, referenceable outcomes. A meeting that is not focused and not productive, and instead loosely shaped, badly run and ineffective, is incredibly frustrating, particularly for a community member for whom the meeting is scheduled at an unsociable hour in their timezone. Getting someone out of bed at 3am is enough of a commitment from them without undermining said commitment with a rambling, unstructured waste of time.

Before you run your meeting you first need to kick out two things a few weeks before:

* Schedule - pick a time and location for the meeting. Choose a time and location that works well for the primary community members who you want to join. You will not please everyone all the time, so try to please as many people as you can most of the time. * Agenda - at the heart of a great meeting is an agenda. Agendas keep meetings relevant, focused and on-topic. You should ask your community for agenda items, and a great place to do this is on a wiki. Create an agenda page and allow your community to add items to it. Here is an example of an agenda page we use in the Ubuntu community.

When it is time to run your meeting you should reference the agenda and go through each item one by one. For each apply the following approach:

  1. Identify what the goal of the agenda item is - is it to decide on a solution, reach consensus, resolve conflict?
  2. Keep the discussion focused on reaching that goal.
  3. Clarify the outcome and document it in a public place.

Many, many community meetings start off on the wrong foot by failing to determine the goal of the agenda item, which in turn makes the conversion difficult to follow, unfocused and rambly. Feel free to ask the person who added the agenda item what they want to achieve. With a firm idea of the goal clarified, keep the focus of the discussion on reaching that goal. You should feel comfortable in discussing the details: what work is involved, who will do it, asking people to volunteer for actions and more.

Many people in your meeting will unknowingly take the discussion off on a tangent, become too fine grained in a portion of the discussion or otherwise not engage in focusing on the goal. In real-world or phone discussions you also face the ever-present risk of the lone-talker. This is that well-intentioned and kind spirited soul who tends to descend into a rambling diatribe about a given topic, making everyone else feel uncomfortable interrupting him or her due to their kindly nature. Old UNIX heads have carved out this role with a special level of finesse - their stories are often fascinating, but your meeting is neither the time nor the place for them. You should politely ask if the topic can remain focused on the goal and suggest another time to continue the story.

As you continue through the meeting, you should make a point of noting down each element of agreement and consensus. In many communities, the excitement of agreeing on next steps sometimes causes people to forget to take notes, and a few months down the line when the agreement and consensus has been forgotten, communication breakdown issues can set in. Note down each element one by one: in any case, you will want to report back what you agreed on with the rest of the community who could not attend the meeting.

I hope this helps you folks get more out of your meetings. Running great meetings takes time and experience to master, and I too still have much to learn. If we can keep everyone on track and on-point, there is huge opportunity to get our projects up and running faster, our goals met earlier, and our communities feel more empowered. I would love hear your own experiences, tips and feedback, so do give that keyboard of yours a workout in the comments below.

Image from here.

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